Africa’s Big-Five: A Safari Highlight
By Scott Dicken
After what feels like a lifetime, and with the recent easing of COVID testing requirements to reenter the States, I’m finally back on the road (somewhat integral to the writing of a travel column). As I write my column this month, I’m sitting in a traditional Kosovar restaurant in Pristina, Kosovo while simultaneously attempting to plan a forthcoming trip to Mozambique and South Africa. The planning of the latter, which will incorporate several days on Safari in Kruger National Park, has rekindled my passion for safari – something that’s had to be shelved for the last few years. For that reason, the focus of this month’s column is safari’s infamous “Big-Five”.
If you’ve ever been on Safari, or even just googled ‘safari’, then you’ve very likely come across the term ‘The Big-Five’. It’s the term used to describe the five animals (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo) that hunters found the most difficult and dangerous to hunt. Thankfully, the term is more prevalently used these days to attract tourists to game parks, reserves, and countries that play host to each of the Big-Five species.
There are three important things to note about any attempt to spot the Big-5 on Safari:
- Just because a country hosts the Big-Five doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to see them all on the same safari on the same day (even with all the luck in the world). For example, you have the potential to see four of the Big-Five on a safari in Etosha National Park in Namibia, but if you want to spot a Cape Buffalo you’ll have to head elsewhere in the country.
- The combination of poaching, which can cause parks and countries to lose Big-Five status, in addition to the translocation of animals, which, for example, made Rwanda a Big-Five country again in 2017, means that country status changes over time (albeit very slowly).
- Animal Density affects your chances of spotting the Big-Five. Just because a country (or even an individual park) has Big-Five status in no way means you’re guaranteed, or even likely, to see the Big-Five if there are particularly low numbers of any one animal. So, if spotting the Big-Five is an absolute ‘must’ for you then it’s best to check current density levels of each species; or else be faced with trying to find the one remaining black rhino in a country (that’s a fictitious example, but you get my point).
The Big-Five: Which Countries and National Parks?
Kenya: The first and most obvious choice for any first-time safari-goer looking to ‘hunt’ down the Big-Five is the Masai Mara – even though rhino are rarer in the Reserve. If you really wanted to increase your chances of spotting rhino then my advice would be to twin the Masai Mara with Lake Nakuru which has a very healthy population of both Black and White Rhino. If you want the Big-Five AND a famous backdrop, head to Amboseli National Park. Amboseli is where you’ll have the chance of taking that postcard picture of an elephant with Mount Kilimanjaro (located across the border in Tanzania) in the background.
Tanzania: Where Kenya has the Masai Mara, Tanzania has the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Both are excellent choices for a Big-Five Safari (despite the rarity of rhino in the Serengeti). However, if you aren’t a fan of crowds, I’d consider another park (both the Serengeti and Ngorongoro can sometimes feel like a Disney Parade of vehicles); my suggestion would be to head to Selous Game Reserve. It too has the Big-Five and as a bonus has a healthy population of my favorite animal, Wild Dogs.
South Africa: I could probably write an entire Big-Five article on South Africa alone. It is by far the best place for a Big-Five safari. However, for anyone who has been on a number of safaris, South Africa starts to lose is affinity when you’re looking for a ‘wild’ experience. That said, if you’re looking for a good value, luxury Big-Five experience then look no further than the Kruger National Park in the East of the country.
Namibia: The best place for wildlife spotting in general is Etosha National Park in the north of the country. Whilst Etosha isn’t home to any Cape Buffalo it does house the remaining Big-Four and the neighboring Waterberg Plateau does have Cape Buffalo. So, you can just take the quick drive between the two if needs be (and the roads in Namibia are particularly good which makes a self-drive safari all the more appealing).
Zambia: I love South Luangwa National Park! It’s my favorite safari destination and some of the best leopard sighting chances you’ll have anywhere in Africa. That said, it doesn’t have rhino. In fact, there’s only one place (I think…) where you can see all of the Big-Five in one sitting in Zambia. That place is North Luangwa, which is a true wilderness and probably beyond the comfort zone of all but the most ardent of safari-goers. If you’re just looking for rhino then check out Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. The Park is beside Victoria Falls, has White Rhino, and a has also introduced some Black Rhino in a pilot area. In my opinion Mosi-oa-Tunya is more of a ‘wild zoo’ than a true wilderness safari as it’s so tiny, but if needs must then that’s your best bet in terms of ratios.
Botswana: Chobe, Makgadikgadi Pans, Nxai Pan and Okavango Delta (including Moremi Game Reserve which is the only part of the Delta where you can spot rhino) are your best bets for Big-Five spotting in Botswana. I’m a big fan of Chobe, which offers the opportunity for land and water-based safari (you can even stay on a houseboat). If you’re interested in a real wilderness experience, then head to Okavango where wild camping deep inside the delta is a highlight. Admittedly, digging your own toilet and not showering for a week might not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, but nothing beats the thrill of climbing out of bed straight into the wilderness first thing in the morning.
Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe isn’t the first choice of most people looking to go on safari, but its major advantage is the lack of crowds and a more traditional safari experience. Zimbabwe has a number of safari offerings but only one of those is a World-class, big hitter, Hwange National Park. You can see all the Big-Five in Hwange with a particular prevalence of elephant. It’s also not too far from Victoria Falls (about a 2.5 hour drive) which is an added bonus.
Malawi: Majete is probably your best bet for a Big-Five safari in Malawi; particularly after the reintroduction of over 2,500 animals fairly recently (including the 500 Elephants initiative). I’m led to believe that Liwonde is also a Big-Five park, but having been myself I’m not convinced that your chances are high of seeing lion, and black rhino can only be found within a fenced sanctuary (although I heard a rumour that they’d broken out in to the main park…).
Rwanda: With the reintroduction of 15 African lions in 2015, and 18 Eastern Black Rhinos in 2017, Akagera is Rwanda’s only Big-Five park. This means that it’s now possible to go on a Big-Five safari and Mountain Gorilla tracking (in Volcanoes National Park) and lessens the need to overland between Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya on the same trip (although in fairness that’s a lot of fun in and of itself).
Uganda: Technically, Uganda is a Big-Five country, but you won’t find all of the Big-Five in any one location; the reason being that Rhino was essentially poached into non-existence during the civil wars in the country. The only remaining place to see rhino is at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, which has an active rhino rehabilitation program. The remaining four of the Big-Five can be found roaming in the National Parks of Kidepo Valley, Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth.
Eswatini: The country formerly known as Swaziland is a Big-5 country with a surprising number of impressive national parks given its diminutive size. Your best bet for finding all of the Big-5 is to visit the country’s most popular safari destinations, Hlane Royal National Park and Mhkaya Game Reserve. Being located right next door to South Africa also means you’ll have the opportunity to country hop and visit the more popular Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Happy Safari Travels!
About the Author: Scott Dicken is a world traveler and amateur photographer on top of being employed full time at an internationally known company. His love of travel is evident – you can read more articles like this at takephotosleavefootprints.com